Shadow Government

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Burma’s opening and the balance of values in Asia

Shadow Government taskmaster guru Will Inboden has written an excellent essay on the broader implications of Burma’s opening for the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Particularly intriguing is his exploration of the link between the strategic imperatives driving the U.S.-Burma rapprochement and the indigenous reform process underway in Burma itself. Will’s provocative thesis ...

Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images
Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images
Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government taskmaster guru Will Inboden has written an excellent essay on the broader implications of Burma's opening for the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Particularly intriguing is his exploration of the link between the strategic imperatives driving the U.S.-Burma rapprochement and the indigenous reform process underway in Burma itself.

Will's provocative thesis is that, in Burma and more widely in U.S. foreign policy, the choice between realism and idealism is a false choice. In fact, American efforts to shape a favorable balance of power in Asia can interact with domestic reform processes in transitional countries. In this feedback loop, strategic stability is actively reinforced by political liberalization. The salience of ideas about political liberty, in other words, can create new realities that reorder the material balance of power.

Shadow Government taskmaster guru Will Inboden has written an excellent essay on the broader implications of Burma’s opening for the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Particularly intriguing is his exploration of the link between the strategic imperatives driving the U.S.-Burma rapprochement and the indigenous reform process underway in Burma itself.

Will’s provocative thesis is that, in Burma and more widely in U.S. foreign policy, the choice between realism and idealism is a false choice. In fact, American efforts to shape a favorable balance of power in Asia can interact with domestic reform processes in transitional countries. In this feedback loop, strategic stability is actively reinforced by political liberalization. The salience of ideas about political liberty, in other words, can create new realities that reorder the material balance of power.

As Will puts it:

In short, if the Burma opening works, it will be a success for balance-of-power realists and human rights advocates alike, and might suggest a new paradigm for international relations theorists and policy practitioners in which maintaining a stable balance of power can serve as a lever for promoting human rights and democracy.

Realism, with its emphasis on the balance of power, is an essential starting point for understanding international relations. But it cannot be the end point, because a country’s interests and identity can change over time in ways that redefine its role within a regional balance.

Burma is a fascinating case study. It remains an authoritarian regime whose military tutelage is now disguised by a civilian veneer. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is free, but hundreds of political prisoners remain behind bars. The armed forces continue to make war and commit terrible human rights abuses against ethnic groups in the country’s borderlands. Burma’s rulers have no intention of ceding power to their political opponents — but they do appear to be moderating at least the façade of their control over society through an incremental process of political reform. Why?

One theory is that the generals fear undue dependence on China, which now exercises inordinate influence over parts of Burmese territory and significant sectors of its economy. Critics argue that Western sanctions pushed Burma into China’s arms. The more accurate judgment may be that Western sanctions have worked, encouraging the Burmese regime to create some distance from China’s embrace by releasing political prisoners, allowing the opposition to operate more freely, and meeting other Western demands so as to overcome obstacles to closer relations with countries other than China.

In short, Burma’s military leaders defined a strategic problem — a skewed balance of power that increasingly favored China, putting their country’s security and autonomy at risk. They then defined a solution — earning a degree of international respectability through political reforms that would allow them to enjoy a more normal relationship with the United States, Europe, Japan, and their Southeast Asian neighbors. The effect would be shore up regional equilibrium by creating useful hedges against Chinese dominion through closer Burmese relations with balancing powers in Asia and the West. Judging from China’s new concern about losing its previous client state to America, there appears to be something to this.

Burma’s opening also embeds it more firmly in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) — which had refused to allow Burma to chair the organization until the breakthroughs of the past few weeks. Burma will now chair ASEAN in 2014, putting it in the leadership of a bloc whose essential purpose is to preclude the domination of Southeast Asia by any external power (read: China).

From Washington’s perspective, democracies make the best partners and allies. The United States will remain Asia’s pivotal power as long as Beijing’s authoritarian regime inspires fear and anxiety among its (largely democratic) neighbors. Asian democracies like Japan, India, and Australia will continue to deepen strategic cooperation with each other as long as their open societies perceive a threat from domination of their region by an unreformed China. This means that one of the best things U.S. policy in Asia can do is encourage democratic transition and consolidation in the region, creating political bulwarks against threats to the existing balance of power – which is also, in important respects, a balance of values.

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